In the week that has seen #GrabBags trending on Twitter and a BBC news article on the same topic ranked at number 5, there has never been a better time to try to capture my own thoughts on ‘grab bags’.
Here’s one of the tweets that caused some online excitement last weekend.
September is preparedness month. Emergencies can happen at any time and it’s recommended to have a #GrabBag ready containing essential items including medication, copies of important documents, food/water, torch, radio and other personal items #30Days30WaysUK #BePrepared pic.twitter.com/7ZtQlVJ7Yr
— Police Scotland Control Rooms (@polscotcontrol) September 8, 2019
I can’t get fully behind any advice that provides a checklist of ‘essentials’ to stick in a bag like this. In fact, I can rarely get behind any advice in checklist form because I think the real world is more nuanced; at best a checklist is a starting point.
I say I can’t fully get behind the idea; what I mean by that is I can see situations and locations where that advice (and, gasp, even checklists) is sensible, but they are not here in the UK.
In August I attended an Emergency Planning Society event and made a confession. I don’t have a grab bag packed in case of emergencies.
The reasons for that are numerous and some of those reasons listed below. But, I genuinely would be interested in counter-arguments. Am I wrong about this? Tell me!
- The stuff that I would find really useful is the stuff I use every day. So I’d either have to have two of everything or spend all my time packing and unpacking bags.
- A lot of the stuff included in checklists is obsolete – a wind-up radio, in 2019? I’m going to get my news online. (What about if it’s a power cut you say? Well, even then it would have to be super widespread and of an extended duration, and in the very unlikely event that does happen, then really what use is a radio going to be anyway, all it’s going to tell me is that there is a major power cut and I’ll be like “yeah, thanks”.)
- We’re not exposed to the types of risks that would require the kinds of evacuation where a grab bag would be useful. This is actually the biggie for me. We don’t have the types of risks that warrant 48-hour survivalism.
- I reckon I’ve got a level of personal resilience that means I could look after myself in most situations. What this means, in reality, is provided I’ve got my phone and access to a charger there’s not a lot else that I need. (Yes, I know this smacks of privilege, I’ll get to that later).
- I know I would be terrible at keeping something like that updated. I cleaned out a kitchen cupboard a few weeks ago and found a tin dating to 2009. Reader, I have moved house three times since then!
So, I don’t have a grab bag packed for emergencies. What I do have is a series of grab bags stashed around the house for the Zombie Apocalypse.
This isn’t about baseball bats with nails through them. It’s the name I jokingly give the places I store useful things, so that I know where to find household essentials – string, fuses, batteries, picture hooks, duck tape. They’re in a bag, biut I’ll probably never grab it.
As one of the contributors in the BBC article notes, we all prepare ‘grab bags’ every day. If you take a bag to work or the gym, you’ve got the things you need. If you’re pregnant you’ve probably thought about a hospital bag. If you regularly make long car journeys you’ve probably got some essentials in the boot. Grab bags need to be both personally and context-specific. That’s why checklists don’t work for me.
Now, let’s get back to that bit about privilege because this is definitely not an issue to overlook. In the last five years, food bank use has increased by 73%. Read that again. It has nearly doubled. People are reliant on emergency food every day, are they likely concerned about some possible ‘what if’s’?
Not everyone is able to pack a bag in the way that some advice encourages them to.
But now think about how would that make you feel? If you were a single parent reliant on food banks to feed your family. And you see this advice coming out that of by the way you should also have all this extra food just hanging around, and while you’re at it, that money you were going to spend on rent or whatever, no, no, invest in a wind-up radio that you’ll never use.
Of course, I do think that presonal preparedness is important (and often overlooked). But emergency response plans and the systems and processes that support them, should not be so inflexible they can’t cope if someone hasn’t thought to bring a copy of their home insurance when evacuated in the middle of the night because of a gas leak.
Emergency Management needs to wake up and see the real world. And then it needs to come up with solutions and advice that chime with a broad spectrum of people’s realities.
At its heart, the grab bag advice isn’t bad, it’s just ill-framed. Do people really need a bag packed by the front door?
Or is the message really saying “Hey, it might be handy if you’re able to put your hands on some things if you get chance and it’s safe to do so. Oh, but don’t worry if you can’t for any reason, we’ll be here to support you.”